Should City Councils Be Rubber Stamps?

The Niagara Falls City Council a few months ago authorized city and state officials to negotiate a deal with developer Marc Hamister who is interested in building a hotel on land owned by the city. As part of the $25 million project Hamister will receive $2.75 million in state assistance, tax breaks and he will purchase the parking lot for $100,000.

I have seen it time and time again, once a City Council authorizes others to negotiate something, the expectation is that the Council will not change any of the terms that have been negotiated. The expectation is that the City Council will not meddle but will approve what has been negotiated.

Every year when a Mayor or County Executive presents a budget, the expectation is that the Council or Legislature should not change it. When a legislative body does make changes it is usually less than 1% of the total budget. Yet the way every Mayor, County Executive screams, you would think the world is going to end because their budget was changed slightly.

When the Buffalo Bills lease was negotiated and presented to the Erie County Legislature, with millions of dollars being paid by taxpayers, the expectation was nothing can be changed. Just sit quiet and rubber stamp it. When the Bills lease was presented to the State Legislature several local legislators sought to make changes by requiring the Bills to pay back taxpayer dollars if the team is moved. The hand slapping from the Governor’s Office was swift and legislators got the message, be quiet and approve the deal as negotiated.

Three members of the five member Niagara Falls City Council do not like the fact that the deal being presented to them is that Hamister will pay $100,000 for the city owned land needed for the project. If you or I approached the city to buy the land Hamister wants, an appraisal would be done to determine the market value of the land. Why is that too much to ask for in this instance? Why is it that when wealthy developers don’t get everything they want, they cry like babies? The over the top response by the media because three Councilmembers are saying no to the deal being presented to them is amazing.

In my review of meeting minutes of local government bodies one of the biggest issues I see is how few times elected officials say no. While I don’t support dysfunctional fighting, I think government in which most actions taken are unanimous, without little debate or discussion is concerning. Once I reviewed three years of the town of Tonawanda meeting minutes and I was shocked how few no votes there were. From 2008 to 2010, only 11 items out of 3,179 received a no vote! In Lancaster a Buffalo News article pointed out that newly elected Town Supervisor Dino Fudoli did something unprecedented in January of 2012, he voted no on a resolution. The first no vote since May of 2010.

I have no idea what the value of the city owned land needed for Hamister’s project is, but why is it so outrageous for Councilmembers to question the sales price? Why is it to much to ask to have an appraisal done? Why is it impossible to negotiate a different sales price for the land? Mayor Paul Dyster admits that the land owned by the City is worth more than $100,000 but “The donation of the property to the developer is the city’s contribution to getting the project done.” Why do taxpayers have to donate anything to wealthy developers? The hysteria being created is that the City Council not moving forward in selling the land is sending a terrible message for future business deals. Council member Fruscione’s response is “The message it sends is that the corporate welfare mentality has come to an end. When you do corporate welfare, you put the burden on the people of this city”.

God forbid anyone stands in the way of a politically connected developer who should of course get everything he wants. New York spends $7 billion per year on corporate welfare. Study after study shows that the number of jobs and the impact promised rarely come true. I find it refreshing that some elected officials are not afraid to say no to subsidizing private development with taxpayer dollars.